Did you know that a Black woman from Virginia was instrumental in creating a convenience we use every day and almost can’t live without?
Dr. Gladys West invented the Global Positioning System, or GPS, and has finally received the recognition she deserves by being inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame by the United States Air Force, according to Business Ghana, in Accra.
The 87-year-old scholar knew as a child that she did not want to work in fields, picking tobacco, corn and cotton or in a factory, beating tobacco leaves for cigarettes and pipes like her parents did.
“I realized I had to get an education to get out,” she said, according to Business Ghana.
And that she did, studying math at Virginia State University and graduating top of her class. West became a teacher but then returned to school for her master’s.
In 1956, she began to work at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, where she was the second Black woman ever to be employed.
There, she collected data from satellites, and that job is what eventually led to the development of the GPS.
In 1986, West published “Data Processing System Specifications for the Geo-sat Satellite Radar Altimeter,” a 60-page illustrated guide, which was based off data created from the radio altimeter on the Geo-sat satellite, which went into orbit on March 12, 1984.
She worked at Dahlgren for 42 years and retired in 1998.
West is being celebrated during Black History Month, particularly on social media.
“A mathematician who collected data from satellites that eventually lead to the development of Global Positioning System. You can thank her the next time you use your GPS,” educator Devin Heggie wrote on Twitter.
“GPS is a technology we use every day,” wrote author Soraya Chemaly. “Do you know who Dr. Gladys West is, what she did or how GPS was developed? I had no idea.”
Blue Marble Geographic’s CEO Patrick Cunningham wrote: “I learned something today. Did you know Dr. Gladys West was the inventor of GPS? In recognition of Black History Month, I think we should take a moment to thank her.”
Interestingly, West’s story had largely gone untold until the BBC did an story on her early in 2018.
When West started her career at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in the US state of Virginia in 1956, there were just one other Black woman and two Black men who worked alongside her.
“I carried that load round, thinking that I had to be the best that I could be,” West told the BBC.
“Always doing things just right, to set an example for other people who were coming behind me, especially women. I strived hard to be tough and hang in there the best I could,” she said.
So how did inventing the GPS come about?
West would collect and process data from satellites, using it to help determine their exact location. It was this information that would go on to help develop GPS.
“We would come in and sit at our desks and we would logic away, go through all the steps anyone would have to do to solve the mathematical problem,” she explained.
Then she would work with programmers on the functions the massive computers needed to do.
“The operators would call us to tell us our program was running now and we could come down and watch it,” she said. “So we would come down and watch this big computer churn away. Then you’d get some results.
“Nine times out of 10 they weren’t completely right so you had to analyze them and find out what was different to what you expected,” West said.
It was only when a member of her university sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, read a short biography West had submitted for an alumni function that her achievements were brought into the spotlight.
Since then, articles about West have appeared, students have done class reports on her and she has been officially recognized by the Virginia Senate.
A joint resolution, passed one year ago, commended her “for her trailblazing career in mathematics and vital contributions to modern technology.”